Women Leading the Way in Yemen

The Western media seem surprised that women are on the streets, raising their voices, protesting for democracy, and walking side by side with men who all want the same thing. They shouldn't be.
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Glued simultaneously to the TV, Blackberry, laptop, and my own windows, I watched Arab politics come back to life just a few short weeks ago. As someone who has devoted her life to promoting women's human rights and political participation, I continue to rejoice at the role women are playing in the ongoing revolutions spreading across the Arab world. The Western media seem surprised that women are on the streets, raising their voices, protesting for democracy, and walking side by side with men who all want the same thing -- political reform and equal rights. They shouldn't be.

As I write this, all eyes are on Yemen. The country's president of 32 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had signaled a desire to step down by the end of 2011 or sooner, but suddenly reversed this decision, declaring that he would make no further concessions to end the crisis. This move is unlikely to placate the growing ranks of opposition members. As even more generals and diplomats move into the opposition camp, the questions are: will Yemen follow the route chosen by Egypt and Tunisia, in which the military stepped in to engineer a swift transition of power, or will Yemen become another Libya, where the elite have fractured into a civil war?

Unfortunately, many pundits and policymakers in the U.S., Europe and throughout the Arab world view this historic opportunity in Yemen through the narrow lens of terrorism. They are publicly fretting about how various scenarios may affect the near term fortunes of extremist groups or whether a next strongman will emerge to provide "stability" to preserve their interests in Yemen's capital, Sana'a. Both approaches are shortsighted.

Instead of more guns to fight terrorism, the West and Yemen's Arab neighbors should be asking how we can support Yemen in a transition to a robust and fully representative democracy. A true democracy in Yemen won't be built overnight, but it is the only thing that can begin to ease the economic despair, political sense of helplessness, and resentment of perceived foreign meddling that breeds terrorism and instability. Women must be part of that transition.

The puzzle of democracy has many pieces: civil society groups, better education, and economic opportunities. Women are 50 percent of that puzzle. Their voices have never been silent, but now, at long last, they're being heard. And well they should be.

On March 8, Women's Day in Yemen, a crowd of hundreds of peaceful female protesters gathered in Sana'a to demand the ouster of President Saleh. The protest was an act of courage that would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago.

Mona Safwan, a participant in the march, captured the attitude of many protesters:

"The peaceful struggle through the media and pressed for by human rights organizations, the peaceful sit-ins, they did not bear fruit, and also the peaceful demands and peaceful struggle for this country. Now we join the women because the peaceful means did not work. It must be a revolution."

Consider also the case of Tawakul Karman, a 32- year old mother of three who has emerged at the forefront of the movement to oust Saleh. Several stints in prison and an assassination attempt last year have only redoubled Karman's determination as she works to coordinate the sit-ins and demonstrations that are rocking Yemen's political scene, and some observers have floated her name as a possibility for president.

Yet despite demonstrating, taking risks, mobilizing, suffering, marching, and standing side by side with men in the revolutions and protest movements of the modern era, women have historically found themselves omitted from both power and opportunity in revolutions' aftermaths. For instance, only 8 percent of women are ever represented in any type of reconciliation plans. The unfortunate historical record is that, from Mexico to Iran to post-Soviet Eastern Europe, women are often left out of post-revolutionary decision-making processes, exacerbated by traditionally lower participation rates in government, military and business.

Women have made strides in Arab politics in recent years. In 2005, the International Parliamentary Union said that 6.5 per cent of MPs in the Arab world were women, compared with 3.5 per cent in 2000. And in Tunisia, the first Middle Eastern country to fall to regime change in the region, nearly 23 percent of members of Parliament were women. No wonder the media is now taking time to listen "to us." Having witnessed history being made these past few weeks, we must continue to create political comfort zones where we develop local leaders, and where both sides work without interference from identity politics. Nowhere is this currently more evident than Yemen.

In 2005 I founded Karama, a network of groups around the Arab region working to end violence against women and promote female political participation. The organization, whose name means "dignity" in Arabic, has given me a front row view of the triumphs of Arab women like Tawakul Karman, as well as a perspective on the years and decades of hard work that still lie ahead.

We should acknowledge and celebrate the role of Yemeni women in the movement. They are a hopeful sign of the vibrant democracy that might be born in Yemen -- if it is allowed to. But the only way to truly honor struggle and sacrifice of these heroines is to make sure they have an equal seat at the policymaking table the day after Saleh leaves.

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